Brow Beat

The Writer-Director of Mission: Impossible—Fallout on Improvising a Blockbuster

Like the long-running franchise’s hero, Christopher McQuarrie isn’t afraid of making it up as he goes along.

Tom Cruise hangs from a helicopter in Mission: Impossible—Fallout.
Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible—Fallout.
Paramount Pictures

You don’t need much to make a Mission: Impossible movie: just Tom Cruise, a few obstacles for him to climb over or jump off of, and a rubber mask or two. But an increasingly vital element is Christopher McQuarrie, who with Fallout becomes the first director in the franchise’s 22-year history to return for a second go-round. McQuarrie made his first foray into directing after winning an Oscar for his screenplay for The Usual Suspects in 1996, but the resulting film, The Way of the Gun, was a stiff (as you’ll seen below, even McQuarrie isn’t especially fond of it), and it took 12 years for him to get back behind the camera.

When he did, with 2012’s Jack Reacher, the result was a lean, sparse action movie and the cementing of a fruitful partnership with its star, Tom Cruise. McQuarrie went on to write the screenplay for Edge of Tomorrow and write and direct both Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation and its follow-up. (He also has a screenplay credit on The Mummy, but no one bats a thousand.) McQuarrie, who also did uncredited screenplay work on Ghost Protocol, has been instrumental in revitalizing a franchise that felt like it was out of gas and taking it to new, deliriously absurd heights, importing a sense of knowing wit alongside its mandatory action sequences. In an interview this week, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, he talked to Slate about embracing the chaos of making a modern blockbuster, why it’s a director’s job to attack a screenplay rather than protect it, and how watching a Mission: Impossible movie is a lot like making one.

You’ve said one of the strengths of the Mission: Impossible series is that there’s a different director with every film, and you wanted to uphold that tradition with Fallout and approach it as a new director even though it’s the second one you’ve made. How is the director of Fallout different from the director of Rogue Nation?

On the surface, I came with a different crew. I came with a different set of collaborators, some of whom had never worked on a movie of this scale. Under the hood, I was coming at this story from a more emotional, more character-based direction than the last film. I’d noticed that of the five previous films, including the one I directed, Ethan was kept at arm’s length. You were never inside Ethan’s head. He’s a bit of a cipher. And what we know about Ethan is based on what people around him speculate. And I was determined to put the audience right inside Ethan’s head from the opening frame of the film and put them in a place where they knew more about Ethan’s innermost secrets than his team did.

You wrote the line in Rogue Nation where Ethan is described as “the living manifestation of destiny.” That’s not a description you can give to an actor and say, “OK, play that.”

Exactly.

Over the course of three M:I movies—you did uncredited script work on Ghost Protocol before writing and directing the next two—you’ve developed the idea that you want the movies to reflect the experience of making them, which often means reworking major parts of the story on the fly.

Oh, yes. That started with Rogue and continued into this movie, for sure …

There are several moments in Fallout where Ethan runs headlong into a situation without quite knowing what he’s doing, and his attitude is always, “I’ll figure it out.”

Right, and there’s another moment when Benji asks Ethan, “How are you not gonna let that happen?” And Tom thinks for a minute and says, “I’m working on it.” We find ourselves in creative meetings all the time with my team looking at me and saying, “What are we gonna do when we get to New Zealand?” And I said, “I’m working on it. Just give me the set and I’ll know what to do on the set when I get there. First, show me where I’m shooting and I’ll tell you what’s gonna happen when we get there.”

A movie going into production without a completed script is usually reported as a sign that a movie is in trouble, but it seems that the more experienced you are at making these kinds of movies, the more that’s the way you work.

It is, and it’s never by choice. I would much rather have a script going in and have that plan and not have to spend my weekends staring at a blank screen and trying to figure out what the movie’s going to be. But what I’ve learned over the course of working on three of these movies is that if the major pieces are in place, you can keep the train moving without actually knowing what’s going to be said in the locations before you get there. As long as everybody knows, “OK, this is where we’re going to be shooting on this day, and this is roughly what we’re going to be shooting.” The information, the story, that’s being conveyed on top of that is malleable. So a lot of times we’ll shoot scenes out of order and those scenes will tell us what the scenes around them need to include in order for the scene you just shot to make sense. You start with an infinite number of possibilities, and with everything you commit to film, your possibilities are reduced. The boundaries are created and the infinite possibilities for where the story [is] going become immediately finite. And your choices are made for you by the end of the film.

When someone starts out as a writer and moves into directing, you can often tell from the movies they make: They end up being dialogue-heavy and essentially feel like they were filmed as written. Whereas with Jack Reacher and M:I, the memorable moments are largely visual. You seem to be someone who cuts dialogue out rather than trying to keep it in.

Yeah, and I’ve learned that the hard way. I mean, you look at my first film [The Way of the Gun], and I did just that. I shot the screenplay. The camera is constantly at eye level. It’s not what I would call a visually arresting movie. It really relies heavily on the dialogue and on the intellect of the movie as opposed to the emotion. It’s a lot of head and very little heart. It’s somewhat austere.

I was learning over time that a director’s job is not to protect the screenplay. The director’s job is to challenge the screenplay, defy the screenplay, know when to ignore the screenplay. A writer’s job is just to provide all the information that you can possibly ever need—but that’s not a guarantee that you need that information. Those are two very different skillsets, and you have to be able to switch from one to another.

Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie shake hands.
Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie attend the Mission: Impossible—Fallout premiere on July 18 in Tokyo.
Christopher Jue/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures

If the role of the director is to challenge and defy the writer’s script, is it hard when both of those people are you?

Not really, no, because as the writer, I’m just giving myself all of the material I need to make the story—not only emotional, but to give it a functioning internal logic. The challenge you run into is when you’re putting these movies together and you start to test them, audiences don’t want all that information. They want to know what’s going on, but they don’t want the movie to stop for you to explain it to them. They get very bored, very quickly. So you have to find the balance between information and confusion and boredom. If I don’t have enough information, I get confused. And if I have too much, I start to disconnect. I start to tune out.

You lampshade that a little bit when you have Henry Cavill’s character yell at the movie’s villain, “Why do you have to make everything so fucking complicated?”

Yeah, and believe me, there are two things happening there. The first is, that scene, there’s a version that’s a full two minutes longer, and it explains everything in the movie, every question you could ever have, who he was and what happened in the backstory, and where was the plutonium, etc., etc. And nobody wanted it, and everybody just felt like that part of the movie was sagging. Quite frankly, if it was a 90-minute movie, you could have that scene, but it wasn’t. It was a two hour and 27 minute movie when we cut it to the bone.

The other thing that’s happening in that scene is when Walker said that line, part of me, immediately in my mind imagined reading a review the first sentence of which is, “In the second act of Mission Impossible: Fallout, Henry Cavill says to Sean Harris, ‘Why do you have to make things so fucking complicated?’ Which is exactly what I was thinking as I was watching this movie.” [Editor’s note: Actually it was the end of the fourth paragraph.] I realized I was giving people a stick to beat me with. And I had to be very careful if I was gonna have a line like that in the movie to make sure that it wasn’t that fucking complicated.

What was the best thing you cut out of the movie?

Nothing.

OK.

There was nothing I cut out that didn’t need to go. There were shots that I loved. There were moments that I love. There were performances I love. There is nothing in terms of story. Anything that could go went.

What I did for the DVD is I put together … I don’t like deleted scenes. To me, the director’s cut is the movie you see, however that movie came to the screen. That’s what the process ultimately produced. But there were shots that we really loved. So Eddie Hamilton and I put together a deleted shots reel, as opposed to deleted scenes. And you’ll see everything I wished I could have found a way to put into the movie, but they didn’t need to be there.

So it’s all images, and not “I wish I could have found a way to tell people this or that.”

No, no. It’s all just images. And you’ll see it. You’ll see very clearly. Like, yeah, that looks really cool, but no. Where that was coming in the movie that would’ve just slowed things down.

There’s a tradition in the M:I movies of devising the big set pieces and building a story around them: OK, so Tom Cruise is climbing the tallest building in the world. What’s he doing there? What were the things you knew you needed to have in Fallout?

We knew we were gonna have a helicopter chase. That was Tom’s baby. And I knew I was gonna have some kind of a breakout sequence. That was the very first idea we talked about, when we were still shooting Rogue—that what Ethan managed to achieve at the end of the last movie by capturing the villain created an opportunity for that villain to come back. And I thought, “What better way than to have Ethan be the one to break him out”—which of course then spilled into the motorcycle chase, which spilled into the car chase.

So I knew what that sequence was. And because I knew what they were, or I knew at least roughly what they were going to be, I put them aside and I focused on character first, which is not what we did on Rogue. Rogue was very much, “Got a motorcycle chase, got an underwater scene, got the A400. We know we need another action sequence, but we don’t know what it is or where it goes in the movie. Go.” Everything that happened in that movie was just trying to create rationalizations for why the characters were jumping through the hoops they were.

And you wanted to approach Fallout differently?

Yeah, I didn’t want to be living in fear of a big explain-y scene that was gonna make the whole plot of the movie come together. Of course, that’s unavoidable. We have that scene. We have a scene like that when Alec Baldwin shows up in London. So I asked myself, “How do I make this scene exciting? How do I give this scene life?” And that’s where we got the very late notion of it being conflict instead of information. That Hunley comes in and is not there to support the team, is not here to help Ethan. In all the versions prior to that I was like, I love the idea that Hunley was showing up to warn the team and to help them and to be something of a father figure there. And I realized, that’s getting in the way of what makes the scene work. Hunley has got to be there almost as another kind of antagonist, another kind of pressure. So the scene immediately became one of conflict. And that conflict, you feel it beginning to fracture the team. He’s not only reaming Ethan, he’s going off on Benji, he’s going off on Luther. And of course, we know more than the characters in the scene. We know what’s really creating the pressure. And so, we’re watching the team dissolve. That suddenly took a scene that’s normally the information dump, the obligatory scene that says, “Let me explain to you why you’ve been watching this movie for the last hour and a half,” [and instead] it comes across as drama and not information.

Now for an extremely nerdy question: Fallout is set into motion by Ethan’s refusal to sacrifice Luther’s life to keep plutonium out of the hands of terrorists, even though that could result in the deaths of millions of people, and the idea of choosing, or refusing to choose, between saving one life and saving many is threaded throughout the movie—which kind of makes it a version of the trolley problem with exploding helicopters. You even have Ving Rhames’ character make reference to “the greater good,” which is the foundation of utilitarianism. Is it important to you to get those kinds of ideas into an action blockbuster, even if they’re ultimately not that important to the plot? Or is it just a matter of your villain has to believe in something, so it might as well be that?

First and foremost, yeah, the villain has to have a reason. And the stakes have to be as big as you can possibly make them. What we never get to see in a movie is the villain win. These movies are safe and the stakes are never felt. They’re discussed, but you don’t get to see the catastrophic results. You don’t get to see Ethan’s worst nightmares played out. What you’re seeing in the opening sequence of the film, leading up to the credits, is Ethan’s worst nightmares being fulfilled, not only personally, but also professionally. So you’re allowed to experience all of those things in their worst possible way and then I reboot the movie, and the movie starts again with a clean slate. There’s, hopefully, a sense of palpable relief as you go into the credits going, “Oh, my God. For a minute there I thought this was really gonna be an awful Mission: Impossible movie. And now I get it. Now I’m watching Mission Impossible.” That was the design.